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Thread: On the feuding fringe of Russia's empire

  1. #1
    Armchair Worrier Senior Contributor bolo121's Avatar
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    19 Dec 07

    On the feuding fringe of Russia's empire

    By bus from Ossetia to Ingushetiya, round the feuding fringe of Russia's empire
    Roger Boyes on the Caucasus Highway

    People wait for a bus in Pyatigorsk.
    “Climb aboard, make it quick!” Machat, his mouth filled with gold, is eager to collect the fare before his bone-crunching minibus bucks forward. For 30 roubles, less than a euro, you can travel in his battered van from the once and (perhaps) future battlefield of Ossetia down the road to inspect the swelling insurgency of Ingushetia.

    The journey, which begins at Vladikavkaz bus station, takes one through sandbagged checkpoints, past spotty soldiers who fiddle with the safety catches on their guns, and on to the M29, the road that fringes the northern foothills of the verdant Caucasian mountains, into what the Russians believe is bandit country. The M29 may sound as if it is dotted with Little Chefs. In fact it is Europe's Kidnap Highway.

    “Foreigner, huh,” Machat says, ordering me on to the privileged front seat away from the ragamuffin passengers in the back, traders working the dodges between two adjacent Russian regions. “You'll be safe with me.” He flashes a card that identifies him as a captain in the Ingushetian secret police. An agent now travels on every bus heading eastwards from Ossetia to Nazran, the main town in the bloody land-strip of Ingushetia, to the badlands of Chechnya and on to Dagestan, where the roads at night slip into the control of the local robber barons.

    Somehow Machat's police pass (his mugshot shows him in uniform, his gold inlays firmly out of view) does not make me feel any more secure. This southern fringe of Russia is almost lawless. Government motorcades are ambushed, Russian soldiers are shot or abducted, blood feuds spill into every institution, weak ministers buy support from clan leaders. Houses are fire-bombed. Roving gangs of Russian security police snatch and torture suspects. Young Islamic thugs reply in kind.

    This is where empire falls apart. It had all looked more promising for the Russians in August. The six-day war against Georgia must have seemed like a giant step forward for Vladimir Putin's state, which leans so heavily on the implicit threat of force. Russian forces cut a swath through Georgia, sapped the authority of a leader who had irritated the Kremlin and secured at little cost the “independence” not only of South Ossetia but also of Abkhazia, with its access to the Black Sea.

    Russia, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has a military presence on the other side of the Caucasus.

    But in doing so it has made an arc of crisis out of the M29.

    Russian North Ossetia is counting on a merger with South Ossetia; Russian subsidies will flow and soon enough there will be a new Christian-dominated province with scores to settle. Near by: a resurgent Chechnya, massively reconstructing after a decade of war, bloated with pride and with scores to settle. Sandwiched in between: the failed state of Ingushetia, a land of political murders. This week in Nazran a suicide bomber tried unsuccessfully to ram his Lada packed with explosives into the Mercedes of the Ingushetian Interior Minister, Musa Medov.

    That is the measure of the Kremlin's failure on its southern frontier.

    “We belong together,” says Nina Khaloyeva, a teacher from Vladikavkaz, which has been the Russian garrison town in the Caucasus since Tsarist days, a Christian fortress on Muslim terrain, talking about the two Ossetias. “Most of us have family in southern Ossetia and we are very emotionally connected, the north with the south. I remember sitting as a child under the spreading apple trees with my cousins there.”

    Ms Khaloyeva teaches at the town's Institute of Civilisation. The name resonates: for many Russians, Vladikavkaz is the last stop before the the barbarian world. The 19th-century writer Mikhail Lermontov was one of many literary exiles who responded to this prejudice by painting a vivid picture of the mountain peoples as more pure than the corrupt spirits of the St Petersburg court. The Russians did not thank him for it. When Lermontov died in a duel in Pyatigorsk, just up the present M29, the Tsar commented sourly: “A dog deserves to die like a dog.”

    The Ossetes are no longer on a war footing but they haven't taken their uniforms off, either. The army, having tasted a quick victory in Georgia, is awaiting a new mission. In the meantime you can see hard-boiled men in combat fatigues having their hands manicured. Clan chiefs have invested in cosmetic parlours for their mistresses and local soldiers are encouraged to pay a visit, the makings of a well-groomed army.

    It will not take much to rekindle the hatred between the Ossetes, the Ingush and the Chechens. The Ingush, like the Chechens, were expelled from their lands by Stalin in 1944. When they returned from Kazakhstan in the 1950s (they slaved in the gold mines there, hence their skill in creating gold teeth) they found their homes had been occupied in their absence by Ossetes.

    In 1992 the Ingush went to war with North Ossetia to reclaim part of that land. They were beaten in a short, nasty war which is now commemorated in a memorial museum outside Nazran. It is a wound that is being constantly scratched.

    Then, in 2004, came the Beslan school siege. More than 300 children and teachers, overwhelmingly Ossetian, were killed in part by the hostage takers, Chechen separatists, many of Ingushetian origin, and in part by a bungled Russian attempt to free them.

    So, yes, some Ossetes are itching for revenge against their Muslim neighbours.

    In the wreckage of Beslan school (a new one, guarded by soldiers, has been built across the railway track) somebody has scrawled on a wall a verse by the singer-poet Vladimir Vsotsky: “If you don't face the executioner and fight/your life will lose its sense and right.” In the gym where most of the children died, visitors have placed hundreds of water bottles: the kidnappers had denied them water during the siege. Behind the basketball hoop there is still a mess of bullet holes.

    Vladimir Putin was then President and very anxious indeed to deflect public anger from his poor crisis management. He blamed the local authorities and used Beslan as an excuse to tighten Kremlin control over the nomination of local satraps. Now he is saddled with the consequences of his power grab. The authority of the Ingushetian President, Murad Zyazikov, a former security police general installed by Mr Putin, is crumbling by the day.

    Replacing him would be a sign of Kremlin weakness but keeping him in place is driving the little republic into chaos. The turning point came last month, when one of Mr Zyazikov's sternest critics, the online journalist Magomed Yevloyev, was shot dead by police soon after arriving in Ingushetia. The President travelled in the same plane from Moscow, disembarking via a separate exit, leaving police to pick up Mr Yevloyev, whose body was dumped later in front of Nazran hospital. The President barely dares to show his face outside his gold-domed palace. The journalist's family has declared a blood feud against Mr Zyazikov's family; his cousin has already been killed. Dissidents say the President has sent an emissary to the family claiming that the killing was none of his doing. That sounds like a President running scared; and a problem for the Kremlin.

    Bearing Mr Yevloyev's fate in mind, it was with mixed feelings that I turned up at Ingushetia's only hotel, the spookily empty, cavernous Hotel Assa. On one occasion local secret police broke into the rooms of visiting Russian reporters, hooded and beat them, shouted death threats and dumped them on the Chechen border. Either to stop this happening, or to make sure that this time the reporter is kidnapped without a hitch, five men with Kalashnikovs have been stationed in the lobby. That made one man per guest. I think I can spot mine: his gun lies on the floor like a faithful dog on a rug.

    After shedding my minders, I headed for a covered market. Nasir has the whisper of a moustache, is 17 and hanging out with friends (one in an Arsenal shirt) between a stall selling fake Wolford tights and another selling brooms. Nazran has five markets and four mosques. The resistance to the Zyazikov regime takes shape somewhere between them.

    Unemployment is so high, probably close to 70 per cent, in this land of 300,000 inhabitants that fathers are happy when their daughters marry traffic cops, or secret policemen, because they are the only people bringing in decent bribes.

    Nasir says he shares his name with an Ingushetian Olympic gold medal winner, one of three - in wrestling, judo and boxing. “We like to fight,” he grins, and that is pretty much how it is. There have been 83 political killing in the past few months and 30 kidnappings, according to the human rights group Memorial. Another group, Mashr, calculates that at least 150 people have been abducted in the country over the past five years.

    There are Islamic radicals who want an independent Ingushetian state so that they can bring purity back into public and private life. They are the ones who have brought the suicide bomb to the Caucasus, an alien form of killing here. Victims of blood feuds traditionally have to look into the eyes of their killers; that is why the knife is so often the weapon of choice.

    There are moderates who want to make life so difficult for the Russians that Moscow replaces President Zyazikov with Ruslan Aushev, a more assertive figure who has irritated the Putin establishment. The first aim of this group is to make the President a prisoner in his palace.

    And then there are the likes of Nasir, who just want to claim some scalps.

    By this time, moving on into Chechnya is something of a relief.

    Roger Boyes's journey continues tomorrow
    Chechnya and Ingushetia
    Interesting article on the chaotic caucasus.
    Last edited by bolo121; 03 Oct 08, at 06:39.
    For Gallifrey! For Victory! For the end of time itself!!

  2. #2
    Senior Contributor Knaur Amarsh's Avatar
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    01 Oct 07
    In the meantime you can see hard-boiled men in combat fatigues having their hands manicured. Clan chiefs have invested in cosmetic parlours for their mistresses and local soldiers are encouraged to pay a visit, the makings of a well-groomed army.
    Well, they may not have the best army in the region but they ll certainly have the most metrosexual )
    When our perils are past, shall our gratitude sleep? - George Canning

  3. #3
    In Memoriam/OAF-Old Aggravating Fart Senior Contributor Shamus's Avatar
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    13 Apr 07
    Quote Originally Posted by Knaur Amarsh View Post
    Well, they may not have the best army in the region but they ll certainly have the most metrosexual )
    Vanya,hold my AK while I get my nails buffed,will you??
    "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories." Thomas Jefferson

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